The Bang, the Buck, the Burden

As colleges across the nation open their doors to anxious freshmen the value and worth of this or that degree, at College X or College Y attracts intense scrutiny.  Everything from earning capacity to preparation for adulthood, even happiness and contentment seems to fall in the laps of universities. Recently released “Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates,” by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa confirms concerns.  And some institutions willingly and foolishly accept unrealistic expectations without qualification for anyone with the minimum preparation, paltry determination as long as he or she has a preapproved loan package.  Too little bang, for too much buck, creates a burden for too many.

Universities have lackluster records in aligning costs, benefits, and honest appraisals of the nature and value of various opportunities for study for individual students:  Institutional incompetence leads to widespread discontent and debt for graduates and non-completers alike.  As an educator I believe that the study of almost anything has merit and value, but sticker-price and dreams must be part of the equation.  To help students and families choreograph value, cost and expectation each student, in every program of study, at any institution must be tended to individually.  He or she must be self-preserving in personal decision-making.

The brightest most-likely-to-be-successful students visit places of study a year in advance of actual enrollment. I can guess, with alarming accuracy that at times surprises me, ACT scores, GPA’s and class rank, and even courses taken and planned for the senior year of high school, simply by looking at the calendar on my watch.   It shocks people.  Early visits show planning, preparation and purpose, and answers the most important question of the potential student — Is this institution a good fit for me, my aspirations and my abilities?   A learner who shows up a week before classes starts and says, “Can I still get in for the fall semester?” is almost always doomed to failure. Exceptions exist, for a cacophony of reasons, to prove the rule.

Defenders of the status quo say the high cost of a college degree is worth it and that the net value has increased over the past 40 years.

Yet another group suggests that the value of college has been over-hyped. Surprisingly, Robert Reich, with an endowed chair at the best public university in the world, says that universities are not always worth it: An interesting perspective, considering Dr. Reich’s places of employment and political persuasion.

Some even suggest that a college education is not investment. George Leef observes, “College itself isn’t in investment, just one way of increasing your value.” A fine point in the discussion?  Playing with words?  Possibly.  Too close to the truth for comfort especially for those looking guarantees of any kind, from any occupation, after graduating from any university.

Whether it’s an investment or the creation of potential value there are some things that all who consider attending college should address. Save early, find scholarships or free money, work while you’re in school, and considering all options are pieces of advice that can’t be overvalued in an increasingly competitive collegiate recruiting environment.  When admissions officers are more interested in generating enrollment and revenue, rather than creating a life-changing experience for students, this advice rings especially true.

The bang of a college education only resonates when coupled with the values of the student who seizes the educational opportunity afforded by the experience of collegiate study through individual action.  Hard work, diligence and a commitment to achieve through positive contributions to an enterprise will turn a degree from a little known regional public university into a benefit-for-life to its holder who utilizes the opportunity provided. Students should expect little other than cocktail party conversation holding a degree from an elite private institution or state flagship campus if the opportunity provided, by and through it, is squandered.  All of this no matter what the tuition and fees are — even the program of study.

That is the bang the buck provides, and it is personal and internal, not public and externally certified by a piece of paper:  And, the burden will be light if borne by industriousness.

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